How Should Christians Use the Franchise?
A paper delivered to the Fall, 1994 meeting of the National Reform Association, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
I am setting forth in this presentation the steps leading to the conclusion at which I have arrived in regard to the question of whether Christians should vote only for other Christians. Some of you, no doubt, will disagree. I want to make clear that I am certainly not holding that the Bible explicitly and unambiguously teaches the view I espouse. If you arrive at conclusions different from mine, I will not disenfranchise you (excuse the pun!), but I would suggest that you seriously consider (or reconsider) your position in light of my brief essay. Further, I trust that careful students and scholars will not interpret the simple, plain manner in which this position is presented as a reflection on the position itself; it can, I am confident, be defended in a most careful and sophisticated manner, though such a defense is not appropriate to this occasion.
A few relevant autobiographical details may furnish a sound springboard for the discussion. I was raised as a fundamentalist, with all the attending indoctrination in dispensationalism and anabaptism. This included the obligatory view that the present world system is irretrievably evil. We never, as I recall, voted. Voting was considered a waste of time. Politics was dirty business, and anyway, the rapture was imminent and we would be snatched out of this rotten world. The idea was not so much that voting was sin, but rather that it was futile. When I converted to the Reformed Faith, I embraced the Reformed distinctive of applying my Christianity to all spheres of life. That included politics. I was, as some of you, a dedicated Republican throughout the 80s, voting an almost straight Republican ticket in local and state races, and deeming Ronald Reagan’s Presidential election almost fourteen years ago a true godsend. But I no longer hold this view. I hold now that Christians should vote exclusively for Christians-that is, those who with an explicit Christian profession dedicate themselves to applying their Faith in public office. I am less enthusiastic about the two-party system in the United States, and am a firm supporter of a fledgling third party, the U. S. Taxpayer’s Party, whose platform, if not perfect, nonetheless observes that, “Our republic is a nation governed by a Constitution which is rooted in Biblical law . . . .” That assertion is open to serious debate among those of us of the NRA, but the party itself is expressly Christian. And I am convinced that it is through such vehicles rather than the present system in which both parties are mirror images of each other that Christians-at least this Christian-should effect godly political change. I reject both the separatist approach-that we should not vote, as well as the pragmatic approach-that we should vote for the lesser of two evils. Instead, I hold what is, I believe, the principled approach-that Christians should vote for God-fearing Christians.
The question of whether Christians in civil elections should vote exclusively for Christians-if, indeed, they should vote at all-is beset immediately by several other key questions that must be set beyond the venue of this occasion. I can only allude to them. First, we must recognize that the Bible in establishing civic responsibility does not anticipate Western democracies and the pattern of voting as an expression of the will of their citizenry. Second, the very issue of what voting is represents a problem: what does it express? Is the will of the majority the true basis of democracy? What if a candidate gains the highest number of votes but not a majority? What if the majority do not vote? Can there still be an expression of the populace? Should the expression of the populace in fact constitute the selection of politicians at all? Is democracy a Biblical form of government? Is it the best (or worst) form of government?
I can address none of these or related issues tonight. I can only assert that I believe Christians should employ the franchise to elect godly Christian representatives, and that in so doing they are extending in human history the rule of the sovereign Savior, Jesus Christ.
I will support this view by a chain of reasoning consisting of four logical links. First, the Bible requires a civil government over which our Lord Jesus Christ presides and in which the Scriptures shape all legislation and policy. Second, while Christians are obliged by God to submit to unjust and even idolatrous civil governments, they are equally obliged, if given the choice, actively to advance the cause of the crown rights of Jesus Christ and his law-word in the political sphere. Third, in a democracy or representative republic, they should employ their vote as a means to advance the Faith. And finally, the most effective-indeed, the only-means of employing their vote in political races is to cast it for a devout, professed Christian committed to the authority of God’s law.
The Godly Commonwealth
We cannot address the topic of the Biblical conception of civil responsibility without first obtaining some understanding of the Biblical conception of civil government. The expression the Biblical conception may seem presumptuous. After all, Christians disagree widely over this issue. Anabaptists and many fundamentalists hold that civil government is necessarily depraved; it is at best a necessary evil to be tolerated but avoided. Roman Catholics as well as evangelicals like Norman Geisler believe Christians should work for a “moral” society, but one which does not take into account the specific guidelines of Scripture. Many evangelicals, driven by an intuitive recognition of the corrosive effects of the secular forces of modern society, often work against these evil forces without quite knowing what they are working toward. Historic, confessional Calvinists believe Christians should support the installation of the moral law of God as found in the Holy Scriptures as the basis of civil government. The reconstructionists go so far as to say that the actual case laws of the OT possess “abiding validity” in modern society. It is only fair that I confess initially that I am a member of these final two categories (whose views regarding the place of Christianity in modern society are, after all, not greatly different from each other).
The conclusion I will draw later in this essay rests squarely on two ideas: first, that civil society is a legitimate sphere for Christian activity, and second, that Christ in his mediatorial reign is presently seated at the Father’s right hand, waiting until his enemies are made his footstool; that he has empowered the church he has purchased with his own blood to disciple the nations; and that the tool for that discipleship is the Holy Scriptures, the very word of God. I assert that this program is nothing more or less than historic Calvinism; and while we may disagree about this or that particular, this dedication to the application of the Christian Faith in the social and political sphere no less than in the familial and ecclesiastical spheres is just plain, old Calvinism. Indeed, that the political leadership is under obligation to enforce the law of God within its jurisdiction was almost nonchalantly assumed by our Puritan forebears, a prominent stream within Calvinism. Thus, to cite but one example, the Cambridge Platform hammered out in colonial America stated:
It is the duty of the Magistrate, to take care of matters of religion, and to improve his civil authority for the observing of the duties commanded in the second table. They are called God’s. The end of the Magistrate’s office, is not only the quiet and peaceable life of the subject, in matters of righteousness and honesty, but also in matters of godliness, yea, of all godliness.
This, for all its faults in judgment and execution, is a summary of the Puritan ideal. It, like no other view of the relation of Christianity or the church to society, acknowledges the absolute Lordship of Christ over the nations, and the authority of the inscripturated revelation of God in the political and social spheres-in short, what the NRA has stood for unapologetically since 1861.
Why do we Calvinists believe this? It would be impossible in the time allotted to quote all the Bible verses and present all the arguments for it. To those who wish to investigate the array of Scriptures by which this view is defended, I point you to William Symington’s Messiah the Prince. But I will mention briefly that the Bible depicts Christ as presently reigning at his Father’s right hand, waiting until all his enemies, including his political enemies, are made his footstool (Ps. 110; cf. Ac. 2:30-36). He has charged his church with discipling all nations-not all individuals merely, but all nations-by the instruments of the gospel and the word of God (Mt. 28:18-20). Finally, God has enjoined civil magistrates to express affection for Jesus Christ and called them as ministers to enforce his law-word (Ps. 2:10-12; Rom. 13:1-6). And this is just scratching the surface: there are numerous Biblical arguments for holding this historic Calvinistic view.
In defending this view on explicitly Calvinistic grounds, I am in no way implying that we of the NRA should abandon our time-honored policy of including all orthodox Christians in the task of applying the word of God in the social and political arena. I am merely saying that historic Calvinism is, in my estimation, the most consistent context in which to do so. And historic Calvinism, following, as it believes, the teaching of the Bible, insists that the Bible itself, as the law-word of Christ, King of the nations, is the cornerstone of civil government.
There are some, of course, like T. S. Eliot and Russell Kirk, who while agreeing that society should be in some sense Christian, do not believe it should be based on the Bible. Rather, they say, it should be based on natural law-that is, on revelation in nature available to all men. All men will not accept the Bible, they hold, but all are forced to accept God’s revelation they observe around and in them. I believe this idea is not merely unbiblical; it is also manifestly untrue. The Bible does state that men know the truth of God from his revelation in nature, but they suppress or combat that truth (Rom. 1:18 f.). The fact is that men do not accept the authority of natural revelation any more than they do the authority of the Bible. In the Bible, God’s revelation is most clearly and comprehensively set forth. It is the Bible that Moses says heathen nations will recognize as the nobility of the government of the people of God (Dt. 4:6-8).
For this reason and many others, we Puritan Calvinists contend that society should be explicitly Christian, and the rule-book of that society should be the word of God, the Holy Scriptures. I suspect that few of you in this audience would disagree with this conclusion; but I wish to assert that if you accept this basic tenet of historic Calvinism, you are led almost necessarily to the conclusion I am setting forth in regard to voting.
The Obligation of the Godly
Christ is Lord over the nations, but as the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews (2:8) says, “Thou hast put all things in subjection under his [Christ’s] feet. For in that he put all in subjection under him, he left nothing that is not put under him. But now we seen not yet all things put under him.” In other words, this subordination of humanity to the purposes of Christ is accomplished judicially and definitively, but not yet experientially. The exhaustiveness of the reign of Christ must work itself out progressively in history.
The agents of that work are the people of God, the church. It is for this reason that before his ascension Christ commissioned his followers to disciple the nations. It is for this reason that God poured our his Spirit and his gifts to the church. The sovereign God may choose any means necessary (or no means at all, for that matter) to accomplish his purposes, but he has actively chosen his people as the vehicles of the active advancement of his kingdom on the earth.
Sometimes he places them in social and political situations in which it is virtually impossible for them to exercise this calling. Under the old covenant, for instance, God warned his people that if they violated his covenant, he would sell them into the hand of their enemies as captives and slaves. During Christ’s first advent, in fact, just such a situation prevailed. In these scenarios, the church can barely preach the gospel, much less advance the kingdom in the national social and political spheres without molestation. But, contrary to anabaptist teaching, the church’s suffering persecution is not the norm. Indeed, Paul obliges Timothy to pray for the civil magistrate to the end that the church may fulfill its commission without interference (1 Tim. 2:2). But this is just as much as to pray that Christians and the church will not be persecuted, will not suffer tyranny. The Christian and the church ideally should be free to advance the gospel and the law-word of God. This is what we should pray and work for.
I submit that, while the American state has apostatized grievously from its colonial moorings and even from its “natural law” Founding, it still contains mechanisms that inhibit tyranny. With rare exception, the family is still free to practice Biblical faith; the church is still free to worship. Admittedly if there is not soon a reversal of statist apostasy, we may lose these freedoms; but for now we have at our disposal means of advancing the kingdom of God as God intended, that is, in all spheres. True, it’s an uphill battle since the church over the last century or so has permitted the heathen to annex its godly inheritance, but we retain constitutional and legal means to reappropriate this lost territory. This is our task.
In short, our task as citizens of the kingdom of God is to work to advance the authority of King Jesus and his law-word in the kingdom of man.
Assuming, then, that God through Christ and his word governs the nations and requires rulers to submit to his Son and word; assuming too that, when possible, Christians are to advance the Faith in all spheres of life, including the political, where does that leave us as individual Christians as far as influencing politics is concerned? We live in a constitutional republic in which representatives are selected by voting, but the Bible says nothing about voting. The vast majority of rulers in Israel and the nations about her and for that matter of ancient Greece and Rome existed in a line of some sort of hereditary monarchy. In case you hadn’t noticed, few of those survive in our world. Does the Bible require us to reproduce those monarchies before we can reinstall, from a human standpoint, the active authority of Christ and his law? Obviously not, because the Bible is less concerned with the form of civil government than with its basis and laws. Christ is already the King of kings, ruling over the nations. He can exercise his authority just as readily in a constitutional republic as in a monarchy or a benevolent dictatorship. The issue then is not, What form of government? The issue is, What is the locus of ultimate authority? That is, where does ultimate authority reside? We are not discussing whether ungodly governments possess divine authority to command obedience. They do. Nor is the question whether godly governments must be of a specific form. They do not. But are they under compulsion to perceive that they derive their authority from God and be governed by his law-word? The answer is an unequivocal Yes. Of course, many kings of the days of yore recognized the first point: that they got their authority from God. From thence came the heresy of the divine right of kings. That could have been avoided by insisting on the second part of the statement above: that all civil government is subject to the written law of God. I believe we can dispute little with any form of government that recognizes the source of its authority (God) and the manual for its operation (the Bible). In fact, even if the government does not recognize these two features (and no modern nation does), we still cannot criticize the form of government solely on that basis. The Bible no more condemns constitutional republics than it commends oligarchies. I repeat: the Bible seems much less concerned with the form of government than whether the government recognizes God in Christ as its ultimate ruler and the Bible as its ultimate rule-book. Monarchies with this recognition are godly governments; democracies without it are not.
If, then, a constitutional republic such as we have today in most Western democracies, for all its faults, is a valid form of civil government-or at least not an invalid form-we need to ask the next question: What of Christian political responsibility in such a society? In monarchies or aristocracies, the answer is simpler-the Bible requires that we obey the king or other magistrates, recognizing that they are his ministers (Rom. 13:1 f.). This is just as true in constitutional republics such as we live in. In each case, we may disobey only if such societies require that we violate the law of God. But the role of the citizen in a constitutional republic is not the role of a citizen in a monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, or dictatorship. And this is the crucial point for the conclusion of this paper.
The framers of the Constitution seemed to locate authority in the populace (however widely and contrarily that may be defined); the Constitution begins with the memorable words, “We the people. . . . “ Some may argue that they did not need explicitly to recognize the authority of Christ and his word since everybody would have assumed this authority. I disagree with that assessment, but regardless-no matter what they meant to say, we know what they did and did not say, and what they did not say was that Christ is Lord of the nations, governed by his word, the position of the NRA.
This leads us back to the question of Christian responsibility in a constitutional republic. This constitutional republic does not recognize what our colonial Puritan forebears recognized: the crown rights of Jesus Christ over the nations. Nonetheless, within constitutional limits, they recognize the “rights” of citizens to shape the character of the nation. Whether in so doing they have substituted the will of man for the will of God and thus committed idolatry is, for the moment, beside the point: the main point for our consideration is that they have afforded citizens the ability and wherewithal to affect and control the nation-within, as I have said, certain circumscribed constitutional limits. And this citizenry includes Christians-it includes me and you.
Think of it in this light. We have a political system that does not explicitly recognize the crown rights of Jesus Christ. The irony is that, in principle, it is quite willing for its citizens to amend the Constitution to make just such a recognition. This is what the NRA has been working for since 1861. It has tried to use Constitutional means to amend the Constitution. Article Five spells out the manner of doing that. It requires the proposal of two-thirds of both Houses of Congress, or the legislatures of two-thirds of the states, to call a Constitutional convention. Then, three fourths of states, or three fourths of the conventions in the states, is required to pass the amendment. Now the point is this: in any case a Christian amendment requires the action of representatives, and I presume those most eager to propose a Christian amendment would be Christian representatives. In the United States you get Christian representatives by voting. As the country is presently constituted, there’s no other way.
The bottom line is that in this constitutional republic Christians can amend the Constitution by means of elected representatives, state and federal. In so doing they can advance the cause of Christ and his kingship over the nations.
This is why the calls for political revolution are not merely misguided but impracticable and in any case premature. Though we have a host of the wicked arrayed against us, we have God and his word and Spirit arrayed for us; we have furthermore the mechanism of democratic and constitutional reform we can use to advance the cause of Christ and his word and work.
Vote exclusively for Christians!
I have been arguing that in a constitutional republic we can advance the reign of King Jesus by voting. But for whom? We want representatives who will do what Ps. 2 and Rom. 13 require: submit to God the Son and enforce his law as God’s minister. Who does that? Christians do.
Unconverted people, according to the Bible, are estranged from and in rebellion against God. They are not subject to the law of God, and, according to St. Paul, they cannot be (Rom. 8:7). Spiritually, they are dead and blind. What if they are conservatives? They are still dead and blind. What if they are Republicans? They are still dead and blind. What if they support the school prayer amendment and vouchers? They are still dead and blind. What if they oppose abortion? They are still dead and blind. The point is that we cannot have the civil ministers doing what God requires unless they belong to God. We need not argue over what theologians term the decretive versus the permissive will of God. True, God sometimes sets ungodly rulers over his people to judge them; but the Biblically ideal civil government is one in which the rulers submit to Christ and to God’s law-word.
How do you get these godly, law-abiding rulers in constitutional republics? By voting. The genius of constitutional republics-no matter what else we may think of them-is the ease of political transformation, bloodless revolutions. It is by this means that the wicked subverted God’s Puritan inheritance over the last 150 years or so in this country, and it is by this means that we, by the grace of God, can regain that inheritance.
There are, of course, objections to this view. Some may say that we should not vote; rather we should merely preach the gospel and pray that our nation repents. I rejoin that preaching and prayer are paramount, but they do not preclude godly political action. Understand, I am arguing that voting for Christian candidates is a means of advancing Christ’s rule over our nation. We are enjoined to pray for a quiet and peaceable life; we will have a more quiet and peaceable life if we have in office a magistracy that submits to Christ and enforces his law-word.
Of course, not everybody who claims to be a Christian is a Christian. But we judge by one’s profession and standing in the institutional church. We cannot judge his heart, but we can judge his fruits. Nor am I saying that we should vote for an individual merely because he claims to be a Christian. Jimmy Carter claimed to be a Christian, but he was committed to policies in wide variance with the revealed will of God. We want explicitly Christian and therefore Bible-believing candidates who will submit to Christ and, within their jurisdiction, enforce his law-word. When I use the expression “explicitly Christian,” therefore, I am referring to those who not only claim adherence to the Christian Faith, but who also are devoted to bringing the word of God and therefore Christianity to bear in the political arena.
But what if Christians do not run in an election? Should we not use our vote to support the “best man”(or woman)? Let me respond by asking, Should we not withhold our vote from covenant-breaking pagans, no matter how “conservative” they are? Why, in a constitutional republic where you have some say in your government, would you use you “say” to say that you desire an unconverted rebel to rule over you?
Others may object, But in a three-way race between a liberal Democrat, a conservative Republican, and a Bible-believing Christian, aren’t you splitting the vote by voting for the Christian, and thus assuring that the worst of the three, the liberal, will be elected? In some cases, yes, but I am not responsible to God for how other people vote, only for how I vote. I must do what is right no matter what the consequences, which are in the hands of God.
What about voting within a non-covenanted nation, that is, a nation like ours not explicitly and officially recognizing the crown rights of Christ? Are we condoning that omission by voting? No, we are fighting that omission by voting. Like Calvin said to the anabaptists who separated from the church, The church may be truly sinful, but you have the wherewithal to alter that sinfulness. Use the means at your disposal. Admittedly, the church and state differ, so the analogy is imperfect, but it is valid, I believe. Let’s not snort about evil when we can change it; let’s change it, by the grace of God.
If the Lord in his grace permits us to elect a majority of state and national representatives, we may obtain the wherewithal to call a constitutional convention proposing an amendment to the Constitution recognizing the crown rights of King Jesus. We may also amend it to reinstate the colonial requirement of religious test oaths for office holders. But one thing is certain under the present arrangement: we will not have Christian amendments unless we have Christian representatives, and we will not have Christian representatives unless we vote them into office. Are we saying that a Christian amendment alone will save our nation? We are not that simplistic. We know that there must be a profound revival and reformation of the Christian Faith. But we know equally that the selection of godly civil magistrates is one means of doing our part to contribute to that revival and reformation.
It is for this reason that I believe Christians are obliged to vote exclusively for explicitly Christian candidates. Let us be about that urgent task.